From a commentary on Rinzai-Roku

From a commentary on Rinzai-Roku

Translator’s Note: Omori Sogen is a well-known Zen Roshi, who was formerly a master of Kendo, Japanese fencing. He is also an expert calligrapher. This commentary is on the recorded sayings and doings of the Chinese Zen Master Rinzai, who taught in the middle of the ninth century A.D.

Chinese words and names are rendered as the Japanese pronounce them. The old Zen master’s name is rendered in modem Chinese Lin-chi, but this is no nearer to how he himself would have pronounced it than the Japanese approximation Rinzai.

In this translation I have omitted some Chinese places and names, and some references to Japanese works, which mean nothing to a modem Western reader.

It is a peculiarity of Zen style, ancient and modern, that they deliberately juxtapose classical phrases with colloquialisms and even slang; the reader has to be prepared for this.)


The Governor and his officers invited the master to take the high seat. Going up the hall, the master said: ‘If the mountain priest goes up on to this today, it is because there is no alternative; it is out of respect for the people. The tradition of our line of patriarchs and pupils is, to hold the tongue. But then you would have nowhere to put a foot. In face of the governor’s insistence, how can the mountain priest this day hide the great transmission?

‘Well, is there here any skilful general to plant his banner and deploy his troops on the field? Let him bear his witness before everyone, and we will see!’


. . . . Going up the hall meant mounting the dais in the main hall, either at fixed times or as occasion offered, to preach the doctrine for the monks. Today in the big temples of Japan the hall of the doctrine is kept for special ceremonies, and there is another hall for preaching. But in an ordinary temple the two are combined.

One day the governor of the country where Rinzai lived asked the master to give a sermon for him and a number of his officers. Rinzai ascended the seat and began by saying that though he has had to go up at the insistent request of the governor, really there is nothing to teach about Zen. But neither is it something which does not teach. It is beyond ordinary consciousness and its discriminations. Rinzai calls himself ‘mountain priest’, by which he means a man of the mountains ignorant of the world. It is a self-depreciatory phrase which he often uses.

Now he finds that to meet the wishes of the people, he has got to preach. From the Zen standpoint, the peak of Zen is neither this nor that. Zen expresses itself right before us—the sky high above and the earth below, the willow green, the flower red. With these things right in front of us, he says, I don’t want to make a lot of hair-splitting distinctions. And you —you do not have to put a foot anywhere.


A monk asked what is the great meaning of Buddhism The master gave a Katzu! shout. The monk bowed. The master said: ‘That’s a man who can hold his own in debate. ’


As he spoke, a monk sprang forward. ‘What is the great meaning of Buddhism?’ What is the peak of Zen, he is asking. To put such a beginner’s question, there in front of the governor and the officers and the ranks of Rinzai’s disciples, shows no ordinary man. And almost before the words are out of his mouth, without an instant’s gap, Rinzai shouts ‘Ka!’

This shout, which is traditionally pronounced in Japan Ka(tzu),* is written with a Chinese character now pronounced in China Ho! and there have been those who believed that the shout should therefore be not Ka! but Ho! However, the sound does not have any meaning of itself. Or if it has to have one, then the Katzu! is to arouse to life directly an experience beyond all thinking and distinguishing and reasoning and feeling.

The monk was equal to the occasion, and to the Katzu! merely replied innocently, ‘Thank you for the teaching’, by carefully making a formal bow.

Rinzai said in appreciation, ‘That’s one who can hold his own!’—he is quite an opponent.

^Translator’s Note: It is thought today that this is another case where the Japanese pronunciation has kept closer to the original than the modern Chinese Mandarin, and that the shout was something like Ka!

The ‘-tzu’ on the end of this transliteration from the Japanese is in fact not pronounced—it is a conventional way of showing that the sound is cut off short instead of dying away. It is a sort of glottal stop in the throat.

As a matter of fact English people pronounce a final ‘t’ in much the same way in their ordinary conversation; so when they say ‘I got the bread-knife but it wouldn’t cut’, the final ‘cut’ is similar to ‘katzu’ in Japanese. The ‘t’ is not pronounced. A foreigner who does not know any English at all cannot make out what consonant the word is supposed to end with.

A shout similar to the Zen one is used in some of the Budo arts like Judo and Kendo, and also (piano) in music. It is given by abruptly tensing the abdominal muscles.)


The next one asked: ‘And from whom is it, the song that you sing? To whom does your tradition go back?’

The master said: ‘When I was with Obaku, I questioned three times, three times I was beaten.’

The monk hesitated. The master gave a Katzu! then hit him, saying: ‘You can’t fix a nail in space!’

The monk who came out next used a musical metaphor, ‘From whom is it, the song that you sing?’ No one training under Rinzai could fail to know that his tradition came from Obaku, so to ask about this well-known fact shows that he is no beginner. The master made a matter-of-fact reply, that when he was training under Obaku, he had three times asked what Zen is, and three times had been ruthlessly beaten. In this commonplace reply there is lurking a deadly poison.

The monk had perhaps been expecting that the master would give his usual Katzu! shout, and when instead there was this absolutely direct reply, he involuntarily ‘hesitated’. This word means using one’s judgment, reckoning where one stands, working out what one is going to say—all that sort of thing.

Suddenly Rinzai took him off balance with the favourite Katzu! and finished him off with resounding thwacks of his bamboo stick. So he went back.

‘You can’t drive a nail into space’—don’t do your practice like a man hitting a nail into a bag of rice, was Rinzai’s comment.

There was a master of the chair who asked: ‘Are not the Three Vehicles and the Twelve Teachings enough to bring to light our Buddha nature?’

The master said: ‘Your weeds are not yet hoed.’

The monk retorted: ‘Why, how should the Buddha have beguiled people?’

The master said, ‘Where is he, the Buddha?’

The preacher kept quiet.

‘So’, said the master, ‘in front of the governor you would want to take me in, me the old monk! Go back at once, you are in the way of others. ’


Next appeared a monk of one of the other sects. In the Buddhism outside the Zen sect, the main thing was preaching and study of the texts. As they were lecturers specializing in the theory of Buddhism, holding as it were what we should call a university chair in the subject, they were called masters of the chair, meaning masters of Buddhism.

This master of the chair came out and asked, ‘Are not the Three Vehicles and the Twelve Teachings enough to bring to light our Buddha nature?’ The three vehicles are those of the Shravikas, who hearing the Buddhist doctrine practise it for long months and years to become Arhats, of the Pratyeka-buddhas who attain enlightenment for themselves by cognition of the chain of causes of natural phenomena, and the Bodhisattva path which aims at enlightenment both for oneself and for others. These were said to be the three paths, and each man was by his nature and talents drawn to one of them. The twelve teachings were the so-called twelve divisions of the holy scriptures, and the phrase means roughly the whole body of scripture.

The master of the chair is urging that realization of the true self is not limited to Zen, but that all who practise Buddhism, and the texts themselves, are all aiming at this same thing.

To this Rinzai answered: ‘Your weeds are not yet hoed. ’ What they call our Buddha nature, or our true self, is something absolute, and distinctions of words and explanations can never suffice for it.

‘But then are the scriptures to be false? It cannot be so, the Buddha would never have deceived people.’ The master of the chair did not understand what Rinzai meant, and did not realise that Rinzai was bringing him to realization of the true self.

The Zen master says, ‘The Buddha, after all where is he? Show him, here and now!”

Alas, the master of the chair does not seem to know that living Buddha, and he can only keep quiet.

‘So you were wanting to take me in, before the governor, were you? Go back at once, you are in the way of the others.’ Then the master of the chair having gone back, Rinzai goes on speaking:


And he added: ‘It is for the One Great Matter that we are holding this meeting. Are there any more questioners? Let them come forward quickly and ask. And yet, even as you open your mouth, you are already off the point. How so? Don’t you know that Buddha said:

The Dharma is other than words,

Neither limited nor conditioned?

Because your faith falls short, you get entangled. It is to be feared that the governor too and his officers will get tangled up and their Buddha-nature obscured. Better to retire!’

He then gave a Katzu! and said, ‘You of little faith, one will never finish with you! I have kept you standing a long time— take care of yourselves.’


(He continued) ‘Today’s Dharma-meeting was for the One Great Matter, to know the real self If there are any who have doubts about it, come out without hesitation. But if you fall into logic-chopping even a little, then it has nothing whatever to do with the real self As holy Buddha taught, the Dharma, the highest truth, has nothing to do with texts or words, or with causes and effects and so on, but it is the self eternally unchanging. So it is not something which is to be caught hold of If you could catch hold of it, then that would not be the truth, the Dharma. This is where your faith wavers, because your thought, your belief, in the self has not been made firm So now today’s prating is over. Very likely the governor and his people are caught up in the tangle too. The more one talks about it, the more mud gets over the True Face, the Buddha-nature. Well, let me stop now.’

Rinzai said this and gave a Katzu! shout.

‘O you of little faith, you’ll never get it, even in a blue moon. I’ve kept you standing a long time— take care of yourselves,’and with these words he left abruptly.


One day the master went to the provincial capital, and the governor invited him to take the high seat. Then Mayoku came forward and asked: ‘Kannon of Great Compassion has a thousand hands and a thousand eyes. Which eye is the true one?

The master said: ‘Kannon of Great Compassion has a thousand hands and a thousand eyes. Which

eye is the true one? Say it quick, quick!’ Mayoku pulled the master from his seat and took it himself. The master went up to him and said: ‘How goes it?’ Mayoku hesitated. The master in turn pulled him down from the seat and resumed his place. On that Mayoku went out and the master came down.


One day something took the master to the provincial capital and there he called on the governor, who took the opportunity to ask Rinzai to preach. As it happened Zen master Mayoku was there, and he came out and asked: ‘Kannon of Great Compassion with the thousand hands and eyes—which is the true eye?’ This form of Kannon has a thousand arms and a thousand eyes and the question is which of those thousand eyes is the true one. But from the point of view of a Zen question-and-answer, it cannot be merely a child’s riddle like that. It will be, ‘The living Kannon, the true self, where is it?’

Rinzai immediately fires the question back, ‘Where is the living Kannon, now speak, speak!’ This is an action where the whole body has altogether become Kannon.

Mayoku without a word pulls Rinzai down from the high seat, and settles himself there in his stead—‘Look, make your bow deeply’, he seems to be saying.

Now Rinzai comes up in front of him and says, ‘How goes it?’ This means something like Good- day or How Do You Do?

At this fresh response Mayoku hesitated. An ancient remarks that this hesitation is really an appreciation of Rinzai’s move.

And now it is Rinzai who pulls Mayoku down from the chair and plants himself there.

Mayoku is silent and abruptly sweeps out. ‘Nothing to ask’ —and the ancient praises this exit as showing neither shadow nor substance.

Seeing it, Rinzai too comes down abruptly from the high seat—‘Nothing to answer’.

Would this be the living action of the Kannon of Great Compassion with the thousand eyes? Mayoku becomes Rinzai directly; Rinzai, just as he is, is Mayoku. There is the all-pervading humanity where self and others are one, and is this also the very body of the thousand-armed Kannon?

Daito Kokushi remarks on this piece of living theatre, ‘After the rain, the breeze in the bamboos is cool’, and indeed there is a breath of coolness about it like you get after the rain.


‘On the lump of red flesh there is a True Man without Title, always coming out and in from your face. You who have not realized Him, Look, look!’ Then a monk came out and asked, ‘What is this True Man without Title?’ The teacher came down from the Zen chair and caught hold of him, ‘Speak, speak!’ The monk was at a loss. The teacher released him; ‘True Man without a Title—oh, what is this dried shit-stick!’ And he returned to his quarters.


This sermon in the Rinzai monastery itself, expressing Rinzai’s fundamental Zen thought, has always been a much discussed one. The ‘lump of red flesh’ is sometimes taken as the physical heart, the

organ itself, but it is better to take it as our five-foot-tall body. The True Man without Title should be taken as the real human nature, the true humanity which transcends all limitations or superimpositions such as the Fifty-two States of the Way, or differences of sex or social class, or the distinction of worldly and holy. One could call it the essential life.

This which is called the True Man without Title is said to be always from morning till night going out and coming in to our face. The word originally meant mouth but if we consider it in other contexts as used by Rinzai, it may seem proper to take it as the organs including the five senses, and even more widely to take in the hands and feet. But in this connection we must be careful that it is not something separate which exists within our physical body.

The centre of the development of Rinzai’s thinking is this ‘Man’—it pivots on that one word. Rinzai certainly does not mean a Buddha nature which is only a potential, nor a body nature which exists within; but his special standpoint is that this five-foot bag of shit itself is to be grasped as the True Man without Title.

Mu-I (without title) is sometimes expressed as Mu-E (without clothing) meaning transcendence of all dependence—absolutely naked without a stitch on. Since the Mu-I is the Mu-E, that man limited by his five-foot-tall body and his fifty years of life is the absolutely existent without any dependence. The True Man without Title, casting away the red lump of flesh itself, stands clear; the man of the way is an individual and at the same time transcends individuality—transcendent and at the same time individual.

In our physical body there is absolutely free human nature unlimited by anything at all. From morning to night, with the eye seeing things, with the ear hearing things, with the nose smelling odours, with the body feeling warm and cold, with the intellect appreciating things, with the hands grasping, with the feet walking—ever at work. Those who have not clearly realized this in experience, now, here, see and grasp it! So Rinzai said. Then a monk came out, ‘What is this True Man without Title?’ Rinzai jumped up from the chair where he was sitting, and quickly grasped the clothes at the other’s breast: ‘Speak, speak!’ and glared at him fiercely. He sought to make the True Man without Title come into full operation. But the monk did not realize this, and hesitated, overwhelmed by the teacher’s pressure. Rinzai let him go—dropping his hold abruptly—‘True Man without Title—what is this dried shit-stick!’ This True Man without Title, what a useless idiot this is!

Then he went back at once to his own quarters.

by Omori Sogen, a modern Japanese Zen Master

Similar Posts